EL CENTRO — A spotlight from a patrol unit illuminated a homeless person next to an abandoned building. A plastic bag was seen next to a parked bicycle. Homeless Task Force volunteer Ken Woods allayed the fear of the man, reassuring him that this was just a survey for homeless people. The man relaxed and finally opened up and responded to the survey. A flashlight held by Woods made a light reflection on the survey sheets and outlined the face of a homeless man seasoned by the elements.
As volunteers watched Woods speak with the man, they speculated that he was likely in his late fifties and bundled for the cold night.
This scenario was just one of many that night as the Imperial Valley Homeless Task Force conducted an observe and survey sweep Friday in the southwestern region of El Centro searching for and homeless people.
Isaen Equihua of Catholic Charities and the coordinator of the Homeless Management Information System, said the goal of the rate survey is to keep track of the homeless population throughout Imperial County. Identifying the population is pivotal for getting funding and resources for the Imperial Valley.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development, according to Equihua, requires an annual count of the homeless population during the last ten days of January. For the expansive job of surveying the homeless population, over 190 volunteers signed up for the two-day task. On Friday night, more than 100 volunteers signed up for the El Centro area survey count. The rest would go Saturday to the remote slabs area located in Niland.
Volunteers came from a wide cross section of the the community and included law enforcement officers, students, hospital employees and retired individuals.
The group converged at the parking lot next to the Imperial County building at 7:30 p.m. to sign-up and get further instructions. By 8:15 p.m., volunteers, in groups of at least four per team, took their cars and proceeded to their designated areas.
The photographer/reporter for The Desert Review tagged along with one of the groups.
Ken Woods is a retired law enforcement officer and an experienced surveyor, and was the team leader. The sector assigned to the team was the area between Main Street on the north and Wake Avenue to the south; and between Eighth Street on the west and Dogwood Avenue on the east.
Team members were on the lookout on both sides of Wake Avenue where homeless individuals have previously been spotted. Trailing the team’s car was an El Centro Police patrol car unit. Once in a while, a second patrol unit joined the group.
The patrol unit directed its spotlights behind a wall next to a vacant lot behind a gas station. Some belongings were spotted, but no individuals.
Next, the volunteer group retraced Eighth Street and found one person sitting on the stairs of a hotel next to a gasoline station and hamburger stand. Woods got out of the car and got information from the homeless person while other team members observed how Woods conducted the survey.
Attention was also directed under the Interstate 8 overpass. Nothing. Then the team proceeded to the housing area parallel to I-8, searching along a stretch of walls, behind fences next to vacant dirt areas, along railroad tracks and irrigation canals, isolated cars or newly-parked cars where a homeless person might get a few minutes of warmth.
It was cold with the temperature in the upper 40s and late in the evening. If a homeless person was asleep, it was counted as an observation. However, if they were awake, a survey questionnaire was used.
The group’s search seemed futile, until the patrol car’s spotlight found the man next to the abandoned building. As team members observed Woods from a distance, one volunteer held bags of toiletries to be given out after the interview.
Les Smith, chairman of the Executive Board for the Homeless Task Force, said Catholic Charities in San Diego donated the toiletries. They were assembled by a group of winter visitors from Canada and United States who currently reside at Desert Trails in El Centro. Among the contents included in each bag were lotion, shampoo, a toothbrush, toothpaste, body wash, and sunscreen.
It was almost 10:30 p.m. and only two surveys were completed by the group. One dwelling was identified to have multiple homeless residents, so the team proceeded to the area. It was an abandoned house, enclosed by a wire fence with an open gate. The front yard was littered with items including a broken head lamp from a car. A shopping cart was seen in front of the house entrance. The window was covered with a blanket. A night light from a next door two-story apartment illuminated the place.
El Centro police officers approached the house and asked if there were people staying inside the house. Soon, four males and one female emerged from the structure. They were bundled for warmth for the cold weather. Five respondents. So far, seven surveys.
The team continued searching for homeless people. One, perhaps two, were spotted in a cut-out, a three-sided enclosure recessed in a building. They seemed to be asleep. The team veered towards Main Street next to a bar. A man was sleeping in a cutout a few yards from the bar. The volunteers wondered: Was he homeless or simply under the influence of too much alcohol?
The team then returned to home base at the parking lot and signed-in to complete their report. Three of the team members were new to the task. Two of them were sisters who talked about their experience.
“It was kind of heartbreaking and sad to see people like my parents’ age. They don’t look homeless, but they are living in abandoned houses,” Cassandra Gonzalez said.
Her sister, Suzanne Gonzalez, was also affected by the experience. “I’ve never witnessed so many homeless people and where they live, like abandoned houses, alleys, and out in the middle of nowhere. I can’t believe we have that many homeless people here in El Centro. it’s just kind of like an eye-opener.”
Equihua said that by Sunday afternoon, survey results are not yet been completed. However, in 2016, there were 380 homeless people counted in Imperial County; and 515 in 2015. He said that with more volunteers, there would be a more accurate count for this year.
“It is overwhelming and wonderful how the community has come together to help us with this count because it’s so critical to seeking more funding for the prevention of homelessness in the Imperial Valley,” said Smith from the Homeless Task Force.